Keep watch, stay awake...
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:32-44 NRSV)
Welcome to Advent. Welcome to the first Sunday in the Church’s year.
Advent is the time we use to prepare for our celebration of Christmas, when we remember that Jesus emptied himself of his power and glory, and became one of us, sharing fully in our humanity so that we could share in his divinity. Christmas, then, far from being a glittery flight of fancy is a time when we get right down to what Jesus’ mission really was. It is a dirty, messy, intensely real time, which is almost completely obscured by our modern world, and by the way that the church generally allows its message of transformation and truth to be silenced. Instead of reality we get tinsel for Christmas, and a weak message of ‘niceness’. Still, we can rely on the readings we get in the Gospel to bring us back to the core of the Advent and Christmas truths, if we allow ourselves to be submerged in them.
Matthew’s gospel was written in about 70s of the Common Era, for a group of Messianic Jews (or Jewish Christians), probably in Syrian Antioch. This group was in a state of profound dislocation - the foundations of their world had been shaken, they were being persecuted, and the future for them as individuals and as a community looked bleak. It was for these people, in the midst of profound, life-altering change, that Matthew wrote.
When we read this passage through the lens of the question ‘how do we deal with change?’ (which was the question faced by the readers), we’re struck, I think, by the power of the words. The world will come to an end - but no human knows when, as it is in the Father’s time, and the Father’s hands. Those believers must have thought their world was coming to an end. Matthew’s readers lived in between two worlds - the Jewish world following the destruction of the Temple, and the world of the Gentiles. Neither wanted them. They were real outsiders, at real risk of death.
In all of this, Matthew reports Jesus’ words: ‘stay awake, keep watch’.
I believe there are a number of dimensions to this message.
We’re to stay awake and keep watch by maintaining a relationship with Jesus. For us, Jesus is not to be some figure in a book, some powerful, well-meaning and insightful wise man. Jesus is a living person at the centre of our being. Our relationship with Jesus will show itself in the fruit of our lives. Prayer, reading the Bible, spending time in silence, choosing to be with Jesus rather than following the whims and fashions of the world, choosing to live simply and profoundly, with an orientation that says ‘I’m just a visitor here, just camping...’ - these are all ways in which we live out our relationship with Jesus, through which we’re enabled to stay awake, and keep watch. Without this element, the next few will be absolutely impossible.
The next dimension is behaving ethically, by being faithful in love and care for all, especially for the least of the sisters and brothers. We all say the words we call ‘the two greatest commandments’ each week, but how many of us really live them? I fail often. I often love myself and prefer my own desires above the needs of my neighbours. And I often fail to love God with all of my heart, mind and soul.
Another dimension is to use the talents we’ve been given, in obedience and love, giving back to God what God has given us. None of us is given anything with the expectation that we’ll hoard it - we need to freely give, as we’ve freely received. We do this through loving service, in whatever way we’re called.
We also need to understand that staying awake and keeping watch necessarily involves suffering. Jesus suffered, and we are his servants. We’ll suffer too. I doubt most of us will be called to suffer in the ways that the original readers of Matthew’s gospel suffered - by giving up their lives, but we will be asked to make hard choices, to prefer the things of God above the things of the world. We’ll be asked to allow ourselves to be purified, cleansed, emptied and stripped of all of our falseness, our false identity, our false perceptions and our distorted views of God and the world - and that is tough. Because it means that at a certain point God stops giving us little rewards. Prayer becomes dry, routine and just plain tough. We don’t feel much joy. We’re being purified, as we turn into adults. All of this happens if we ask for it, and it is the real transformation that the church doesn’t talk about much. It is being drawn further and deeper into the heart of the Trinity, from which wells up the real waters of life.
So, stay awake. Keep watch. Choose to do that, or be like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, who could not keep stay awake and keep watch.
Advent is always a time for new beginnings - for the church, and for each of us. This coming week, ask yourself where you need a new beginning, and be willing to live it.